Russia did not wait long after its entrance into the Syrian conflict to bolster its position. Since its military action began, Moscow has backed it up with a frenzied slew of political moves. The standout maneuvers here are Moscow’s proposed solutions to the crisis in Syria, details of which were covered by Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday. Moscow has been able to take advantage of Western ambivalence on the Syria issue, which has created a space for President Vladimir Putin to rise to the occasion and allows the Kremlin to assume the role of an implacable international player in the crisis—one that has, at the same time, now also become indispensable to its solution.
Bashar Al-Assad’s departure has always been at a crucial part of proposed international solutions on the Syria issue. But recently there have been a series of signs from Washington to London to Paris to Berlin, as well as other Western capitals, that they are changing tack on the issue, accepting Assad’s remaining in power perhaps for a brief period—a change that has come perhaps as a result of the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—true friends of the Syrian people—have not budged from their positions on the Assad issue, assuming the role of isolated refuseniks who must now reluctantly deal with this international change of heart—one which, of course, benefits Russia. Neither country wants Assad to remain in power, even for a brief period; but neither has also objected to the recent international U-turn on the issue, as both wish to find a viable solution to this crisis whose problems grow ever more complex as time goes on.
Whilst we cannot say that the Russian proposal is the best put forward thus far, it is certainly the “best of the worst” solutions that have been offered. The West has failed to adequately stand by the Syrian people, leaving the space open for the Russian Bear to step in and fill the vacuum. As the conflict has gone on, the world has slowly abandoned the Syrian people, until only Riyadh and Ankara are now left to swim against the current of international malaise on Syria, even after the U-turns on the Assad issue, which was, once upon a time, a red-line for the international community. The truth is that it is quite likely Assad will not leave after 18 months as has been proposed. We may well find that after three or four or even 10 years that the crisis remains ongoing, still inflamed, and Assad remains at the head of the ruling regime, even if he only controls a small part of the country’s overall territory. This is likely in light of the political and military support he continues to receive from Moscow.
The dilemma now is how Assad can be kept as far away as possible from the political process in Syria during the coming period—and whether Moscow is truly capable of offering real guarantees that the current regime will not rise once again, in new form, like a phoenix from the ashes. Unfortunately, the absence of a positive role from the US, which was previously a leader in the talks and has now become a follower, hacks away at any confidence that the Russian plans will generate a genuine solution free of booby-trapped tactical moves from Moscow. This is especially true in light of the Syrian opposition’s concerns regarding Russia’s seriousness about reaching a genuine political solution. Last week’s meetings in Vienna on the Syrian crisis showed Washington acquiescing to Russia’s vision, as well a lack of any real desire from the White House to to assume a leading position on the issue. There is now nothing left for Washington to do except go through the motions pertaining to this new role it has adopted. Hopefully it will be able to secure some internationally sanctioned balance that will temper this new, terrifying Russian drive.
The bitter reality is that Moscow is now pointing the way for everyone else to abandon Syria, while at the same time not being able guarantee there will be a Syria left at all, now that everyone has actually jumped ship.